Sausalito’s First Sawmill

By Larry Clinton

The following is excerpted from Jack Tracy’s book “Moments in Time”:

Commodore Jones Courtesy photo

Commodore Jones
Courtesy photo

By 1849 as the drive for California statehood got under way, the mil­itary commander of San Francisco Bay was Colonel Rich­ard Barnes Mason, with Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones in charge of the half dozen ships of the Navy's Pacific Squadron. Commodore Jones was well acquainted with Sausalito. His ships were supplied with water there and the anchorage in the cove gave quick access to the bay entrance, or "Golden Gate," as Fremont had christened it.

Jones's problems as Commodore were compounded by the discovery of gold in the hills east of San Francisco. Hundreds of ships, American and foreign, arrived in 1849, straining Jones's resources for keeping order. Thousands of men, crews and passengers, civilian and Navy, left their ships in Yerba Buena Cove and joined the mad scramble for El Dorado.

Not the least of Commodore Jones's problems was the lack of dry dock and repair facilities in California. While taking on water in the cove, Jones and other officers had observed the potential of Sausalito's flat tidal beach; so he established a makeshift dry dock there and put it to a test that summer.

In 1847, even before gold was discovered in California, Commodore Jones had requested the Navy Department in Washington to send a combination sawmill and gristmill around the horn to San Francisco where he needed lumber for ship repairs, and ground flour to feed his sailors. In November 1848 the sawmill and steam engine parts arrived and were dumped on the beach in Yerba Buena Cove and left scattered about as the ship's crew set off for the gold country. Commodore Jones, still eager to establish a repair facility for his ships, signed a contract with Robert A. Parker, a San Franciscan civilian entrepreneur to assemble and operate the sawmill in the cove at Sausalito.

When Commodore Jones informed Washington of his sawmill contract with Robert Parker, the Navy disavowed Jones's right to enter into a contract with a civilian, ordering Jones to reclaim the sawmill and settle accounts with Parker. But Robert Parker had assigned the contract to Lt. James McCormick, who had become superintendent of the Sausalito sawmill and was drawing a salary of $2,500 a year while still on active duty with the Navy.

Slowly, the Navy Department pieced together the whole story of the troublesome sawmill in the unknown little cove that they referred in dispatches to as "Sawcelito." Like so many instant towns that had sprung up during the gold rush wherever a speculator could get a large enough parcel to subdivide into lots, Sausalito had been hastily conceived, with a Navy sawmill as its big attraction.

Robert Parker dropped out of the picture in Sausalito, perhaps because his main interest, the gristmill, never ma­terialized or was stolen from the beach in Yerba Buena. In any case, during the gold rush, Parker was busy with his grocery and liquor business in San Francisco. There he also ran the "Parker House," where in 1851 he was charging $1,500 a month for a room.

The sawmill operation in Sausalito did a brisk business in 1850, selling pine planks and assorted redwood lumber to the Navy as well as to ranchers and builders. Even William Richardson bought lumber from the mill and in turn sold beef to McCormick for his sawmill crew, many of whom were moonlighting sailors. Even so, the mill never lived up to expectations. During the winters it was more difficult than had been an­ticipated to fell redwoods beyond Corte Madera Creek and raft the logs down Richardson's Bay to the cove.

Finally in 1851 the Navy demanded that the mill be seized from McCormick and sold at auction. McCormick made a detailed accounting of his and Parker's expenses and receipts. Referees for the Navy and McCormick's at­torney Charles Botts concluded that McCormick was owed $25,766.64 to cover the difference between his costs and revenue from the mill.

The Navy refused payment, not surprisingly, since McCormick had listed among other expenses payments to navy personnel for loading navy lumber onto navy vessels in Sausalito. The dispute over the $25,000 shifted from Sausalito to Washington, D.C. in 1851 when the "McCormick Case" went before Congress. Rep. Jonathon Minor Botts of Virginia, brother of Charles Botts, now owner of old Sausalito, had a bill introduced to appropriate $25,000 as a settlement to McCormick for the sawmill operation.

The Navy announced in 1852 that the site for a new Navy Yard on the West Coast would be Mare Island. A study had been conducted by Commodore McCauley, who had replaced Commodore Jones in 1851, to find the most eligible site for the naval arsenal and dry dock. McCauley, like Jones before him, recommended Sausalito. But other forces were at work. A group of enterprising men, with the support of General Mariano Vallejo, promoted Mare Island, the site next to the new town named by Vallejo's son-in-law John B. Frisbee in honor of the General. Mare Island was selected, possibly because of the cloud of doubt raised over Sausalito by the conduct of certain Naval of­ficers. Officially it was chosen because of its deep channel and its strategic distance from the Golden Gate.

“Moments in Time,” Tracy’s seminal history of Sausalito, is available at the Ice House Visitors Center and Historical Museum, which is open from 11:30-4:00, Tuesday through Sunday, at 780 Bridgeway.